Uncle Ho’s minders: The protectors of Vietnam’s embalmed leader 「胡伯伯」的保鑣們 越南國父胡志明的守護者

Sat, Sep 07, 2019 - Page 14

The task of safeguarding the embalmed body of Vietnam’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh is grueling: carefully-selected riflemen work around the clock, watching over the communist nation’s founding father who died on Sept. 2 50 years ago.

Protecting him is the ultimate patriotic service for men in stiff white uniforms at Ho’s towering tomb in Hanoi, a monolithic shrine to a man who still pervades public life despite his fading relevance among the youth. The job is a “dream come true” for guard Nguyen Xuan Thang, even if it’s not always easy.

All year round, he works up to four two-hour shifts every day — often outside the tomb in the blistering summer heat, monsoon rains, or frigid winter weather. Some days he works inside the cool, dark chambers where Ho’s waxy body — his wispy goatee beard still intact — is on display for daily pilgrimages by thousands of schoolchildren, tourists and war veterans who come to pay their respects.

Even after hours, Ho is never alone: soldiers flank his encased body 24 hours a day. Guards like Thang aren’t the only ones tasked with looking after Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known in the country. A team of four Russian and seven Vietnamese scientists were hired this year to evaluate his embalmed body ahead of the 50th anniversary on Sept. 2.

Ho did not live long enough to see the end of the war in 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the former southern capital Saigon, later renamed Ho Chi Minh City. But Ho did deliver clear burial plans in his will: a request to be cremated and have his ashes modestly displayed in north, central and south Vietnam in a sign of symbolic unity. “There should be no stone stele or bronze statue,” but rather a small ceramic urn on three tree-lined hills for visitors, he wrote in his will.

However, eager to capitalize on the popularity of the north’s communist leader, his aides chose instead to build a grand tomb, drawing inspiration from Lenin’s mausoleum, the pyramids in Egypt and the Washington Monument. The powerful symbol of Ho Chi Minh continues to be commandeered today by Vietnam’s communist leaders; his teachings are invoked in school curricula, political and military training, children’s books, patriotic songs and on propaganda billboards.

For Vietnam’s booming young population, Ho figures as a distant historic character, far removed from the thriving capitalism, ubiquitous social media and yearning for freedom that preoccupies most of the smartphone-obsessed youth today. For Ho’s dutiful minders, the communist leader remains a central focus. Thang and his team busily prepared for an official wreath-laying ceremony for Ho held Friday, and expected visitor numbers to surge last Monday for the anniversary of Ho’s death, which also happens to be National Day.